Note: This story was updated at 9:50 a.m. Oct. 4.
With a boom in economic activity that includes billions of dollars worth of projects, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark S. Watson offered a dose of optimism about the city’s economic future on Tuesday, and he suggested commercial developments won’t be held up by the owners of the “inactive” Oak Ridge Mall or property owners who set sale prices too high.
Five retailers that might have wanted to locate at the mall are now talking to the developers of a $30 million Kroger Marketplace shopping center planned at the busy intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue, Watson said. He said the city and commercial developers are “going right on around” the privately owned, mostly empty mall, where redevelopment plans have languished for years.
“They’re starting to lose customers,” Watson said during an hour-long lunchtime speech to the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge. “They’re going to be left holding the bag if they don’t start moving—and moving quickly.”
Still, Watson said a redevelopment of the 65-acre mall site is viable, with or without the existing buildings.
He said other property owners in Oak Ridge have set their sale prices too high, and he suggested that’s why the Kroger developers are buying up a neighborhood of about 60 homes to make way for the shopping center—rather than using existing commercial sites.
“They’re not being reasonable,” Watson said of the other unnamed property owners. “I hope that’s a wake-up call for folks waiting for their ship to come in, waiting for their retirement.”
Now on the job in Oak Ridge for more than two years, Watson discussed millions of dollars—even billions of dollars—worth of new developments. Some, including new restaurants and a new Holiday Inn Express, are already completed, while others are either under construction or still in the planning stages.
There will soon be a new Aubrey’s restaurant and a relocated Panera Bread on South Illinois Avenue, a McAlister’s Deli at the current Panera site, and a handful of new fast-food chicken restaurants, including Popeyes and Bojangles’, and possibly a Zaxby’s, Watson said.
There is a $13.8 million expansion at Roane State Community College, a plan to convert the historic Alexander Inn into an $4.2 million assisted living center, an $800,000 federal highway enhancement grant for Jackson Square, and proposals to build an airport at Heritage Center and a $6.5 billion uranium processing facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex.
“There are a lot of things going on,” Watson said. “It’s a very critical time in the life of the city as we try to turn this around.”
With hundreds of new workers employed by the project, the UPF presents a big opportunity during the next decade, Watson said.
“We’re real excited about that,” he said.
He said Oak Ridge residents need to be ambassadors for the community, promoting its positive attributes and attracting new, young citizens.
“We need to honor the past, but we also need to cherish the future,” Watson said.
Residents left the city manager’s annual “State of the City” speech feeling optimistic.
“There are a lot of positive things today that are very encouraging,” Oak Ridge resident Jane Morris said. “We need the positive things.”
Susie Williams Taylor says
For the first time, in a looong time, I’m actually speechless! Excellent reporting John Huotari~~~
John Huotari says
Thank you, Susie. What made you speechless?
Daniel Powers says
Yup, I believe those that own the mall have missed the bus now that Kroger’s development appears to be a go.
Joe V. says
The City Manager hit one of the nails on the head…”property owners in Oak Ridge have set their sale prices too high”…that’s been a trend for a long time in our community…I hope some of the development going on around will wake up the owners and/or leasers of property particularly in the Illinois Ave., OR Turnpike, Rutgers Ave. triangle…